Calvinists like to use the raising of Lazarus as a metaphor for what salvation is like. Our boy Lazarus is dead, and lying in his grave for a handful of days. He clearly is not going anywhere on his own. But then Jesus shows up.
Jesus goes to the tomb and prays, and then
he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”John 11:43-44
Our friend Calvin says that THIS is what salvation is like. We’re ALL dead, and Jesus comes to some tombs and calls us out of them, and we are alive again, or what we might call, Born Again. And to some extent, this is something no one would argue with. So naturally, the Calvinists had to find a way to get people to argue with them about it, because Calvinists love an argument like I love a pizza so loaded with cheese and toppings than people at the next table can hear my arteries begging for mercy.
Our Calvinist friends over at the Gospel Coalition put it this way:
The terms monergism and synergism refer to the working of God in regeneration. Monergism teaches that we are born again by only one working (mono is Greek for “one,” erg is from the Greek word for “work”). Synergism teaches that we are born again by human cooperation with the grace of God (the syn prefix means “with” in Greek). The Protestant Reformers strongly opposed all synergistic understandings of the new birth. They believed that given the spiritual deadness and moral inability of man, our regeneration is owing entirely to the sovereign work of God. We do not cooperate and we do not contribute to our being born again. Three cheers for monergism.
In much the same way they like to present the false dichotomy of Calvinism Vs Arminianism, they also like to present the false dichotomy of Monergism (God saves you and you do NOTHING) and Synergism (God tries real hard to save you, but you need to help Him out a little to actually get the job done). Calvinists will ask, “Why are you saved when your neighbor is not?” and I reply, “Because I put my faith in Jesus,” and they say, “AHA! You are claiming to have DONE SOMETHING that your neighbor didn’t do! You are claiming to be saved by your own works!”
And I say, “No, I’m not claiming to save myself by believing, I am believing in Christ who died to save me. He did the work, I’m just trusting in him.” And the Calvinist says, “AHA! You are saying Christ did MOST of the work but YOU had to help him out because he couldn’t save you unless YOU CHOSE to put your trust in him! You are claiming to be saved by your own works!”
And so I bust out Romans chapter 1 and read:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.Romans 1:18
And I say, “I’m not claiming to have done a work to save myself, I’m claiming to have STOPPED doing the wicked work of suppressing the truth. I have surrendered to Christ as my Lord and Savior. And the Calvinist says, “Well, yes, but you only did that because He MADE you do it. You didn’t choose to trust Jesus. If you claim to do anything, you are saying you had to help God to save you.”
In their defense, the Calvinist is pushing back against the idea that there is anything we can do to help Jesus to save us from our sins. As they understand it, Synergism means a wicked, unsaved sinner can look to Jesus and say, “OK, I will accept your gift of salvation,” and the Calvinist imagines God, who up until this point has been holding his breath, sighing in relief and saying, “Oh, thank me. I wanted SO BAD to save you, but I did everything I could and you still weren’t saved yet! I was just sitting here, powerless, waiting for YOU to do what needed to be done in order to finish the work Jesus started on the cross!”
And it brought to mind all of the times that the Jews had to help God rescue them in the Old Testament. In Exodus God came to Moses and said, “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.”
And Moses said, “Are our firstborn to be killed as well?” and God said, “Yeah, about that. See, protecting the family in a home is as easy as painting the doorposts with the blood of a lamb, and I was totally going to do that for you, but these plagues have me running short on time and way over budget. Can you guys help me to save you from death and slavery by doing the painting yourselves?” And Moses said, “Oh, sure. We can help you out.”
And then later when the children of Israel were on the shore of the Red Sea, with the army of Egypt hot on their tails, once again God came to Moses and said, “Hey, Moses, I need some help again. I was going to split the Red Sea and then carry all of you across on dry land, but the sea is just bigger than I remembered, and I need to get a whole mess of paperwork done, so I can’t spare the effort to get all of these kids across. Can you help with the Red Sea?” And Moses said, “Sure Lord, I can help you out.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. And then tell them they’re going to have to walk across on their own. I would love to stay and carry them across so I could take credit for the entire rescue from slavery, but I just can’t right now. A bunch of angels just took vacation time off, and one of the printers is on the fritz again. You understand, right?” And Moses said, “Of course. I’ll divide the water and we can all do a little more walking. We’ll still give you most of the credit.” And God said, “Thanks Moses, you’re a friend.”
In Exodus 15 they sing a song about their rescue which says:
Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously
with JUST A LITTLE help from us;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea, almost totally by himself.
The Lord is MOST of my strength and my song,
and he has become MUCH of my salvation,
once we did our part and helped him out a little;
this is my God, and I will praise him, and I will praise myself a little too,
since I painted the door post and walked across the Red Sea,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him. And myself, but just a little. He still did most of the heavy lifting. It was a team effort and there is no “I” in TEAM!”
Wait a minute… I thought I was quoting from the ESV, but it looks like I was using The Message this whole time! Let me read these passages in the ESV…
So it turns out that, even though the Israelites painted the blood on the doors of their homes with their own hands, none of them are recorded as saying that they “Helped God” to save them from death. And when they walked across the Red Sea, none of them seems to have claimed to “Help God” save them from the Egyptians, merely because they used their own feet to get to the other side. Moses doesn’t even take credit for parting the Red Sea even though he was the guy lifting his staff and stretching his hands to get the ball rolling.
In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t go into the tomb and carry Lazarus out of it. He calls him to come out and then just waits for Lazarus to get up and come out! Weirdly, none of the Gospel writers record him saying he “Helped Jesus” to raise him from the dead and bring him out of the tomb.
So MAYBE when God rescues people in a way which is mighty and miraculous, he still expects them to do something and not be inert, lifeless lumps as if he is moving chairs around the kitchen. Maybe when God makes a way through the water, he expects us to walk the way he made, not because he couldn’t carry us, but because he wants us to have the faith that moves us to action. And maybe when we get to the other side, we have the sense to say, “God saved us.”
Maybe when the king comes for his bride and proposes marriage, he doesn’t take her as a slave- as property. Maybe he proposes and waits for her to say “I do.” And when she is made his queen, she probably has the sense to tell her friends, “The king chose to love me and make me his own,” instead of bragging, “Did you see that? All I said was two little words and I made myself the queen.”
And maybe when Jesus saves us from our sins and makes us right with God by paying for our sins with his death on the cross and glorious resurrection, we have the sense to realize that the acceptance of a gift is not a method of earning it. When we stop rebelling, put down our weapons and just open out hands, he puts the gift of eternal life into those hands and adopts us as sons. Claiming that the choice to accept the Gospel is earning our own salvation is like saying we pay for the gift by accepting the gift. We don’t help Jesus pay for the grace of God by accepting the grace of God.
The Calvinist distinction is not between a view of salvation where God saves and another where we help him save us. The distinction is one between a view of humanity as robots, where Jesus uploads the antivirus to a selection of robots to save them from corruption, and simply chooses not to upload the antivirus to the rest, allowing them to malfunction and ultimately come to destruction. The Bible does not view us as robots awaiting our programmer to make decisions for us. It views us as being made in the image of God, with the ability to choose between obedience and rebellion. Jesus himself talks about us as though we have the ability to repent, or to reject him. But never does he describe our need to repent as though it is also his need for us to help him save us. Jesus doesn’t need our help, and without him, we can’t help ourselves.
Although, and I know I’m getting distracted here, but as soon as the waitress brings me my pizza, I am totally going to help myself. But unlike salvation, my pizza is something I have to pay for, both now and with my impending heart attacks. When I get home, I’m going to paint my doorposts with marinara and see if it saves me from death. I need all the help I can get.